Casting With (or Without) Castro

2000px-Flag_of_Cuba.svgPrior to Manabu Kurita’s catch of a 22 pound 5 ounce largemouth bass in July of 2009, there was much speculation in the bass world that a new record fish might come from a foreign country, but few guessed that the country to produce such a bass would be Japan. Generally it was assumed that if it did not come from Florida, Texas or California, the next record would be from some country south of Florida. Some argued that it would be a Central American country like Honduras, but most of the attention was focused on the Caribbean island of Cuba, just 90 miles from Key West.

That presented a problem for American record-seeking bass junkies, because for all meaningful purposes Cuba was off limits to them. Subsequent to the revolution led by Fidel Castro in 1959, the country took control of property owned by American businesses (e.g., sugar companies) and the relationship between the two countries soured rapidly. In 1961, the Cubans resisted a military effort led by the US government at the Bay of Pigs, and shortly thereafter the Cuban Missile Crisis arguably brought us as close to nuclear war as we’ve ever come.

Monte Burke's Sowbelly. A great book on the quest for the world record largemouth bass.

Monte Burke’s Sowbelly. A great book on the quest for the world record largemouth bass.

The result of all of this was an embargo that prevented direct trade between the two countries. While that didn’t always expressly limit travel to Cuba by Americans, it did prevent them from spending money there. The severity of the limits on travel have varied over time.

According to Forbes writer Monte Burke, author of Sowbelly: The Obsessive Quest for the World Record Largemouth Bass, “Florida strain bass were originally imported to Cuba from the U.S. in 55-gallon drums by the United Fruit Co. from 1915 to 1920, to provide a little sport for the industrialists.”

The relative lack of pressure, combined with an extended growing season, produced lots of big bass – for those who could get to them. As Burke wrote:

“During the 1970s and ’80s, stories circulated that 11 different fish landed in Cuba had topped the record. On Lake Hanabanilla, a 26-pounder was supposedly hauled up in a net. A few years back, a 28-pounder was said to have been caught in Lake Leonero. In each case, the record-breaking fish was eaten before it could be verified. Regardless of whether any of those rumors are true, the standing certified Cuban record of 18 pounds is enough to make American big bassers salivate over the possibility of it all.”

This created a conundrum for some record-seeking anglers. It’s doubtful that anyone wanted to break the law, but they wanted access to these relatively untapped fisheries.

Dan Snow photo

Dan Snow photo

Into this mix stepped Dan Snow, a Texas travel agent who led bass fishing trips to Cuban waters. He did so openly, advertising his services (later on a website, www.cubatravelus.com). When the Carter administration had loosened the post Bay of Pigs restrictions, he wrote directly to Castro asking for an opportunity to fish Cuban waters. According to Jules Lobel’s book Success Without Victory: Lost Legal Battles and the Long Road to Justice in America, “he ‘discovered’ six ‘hall of fame lakes’ in Cuba, negotiated a contract with the Cuban authorities to lead trips there, and between 1977 and 1982 went to Cuba 120 times, taking 6,000 to 7,000 American fishermen with him.”

In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration tightened the embargo in response to multiple military/political problems in Central America, and thereby re-established a travel ban (i.e., prohibited Americans from spending money in Cuba) in order to hit Cuba in its wallet. There was a constitutional challenge to the travel ban in the case of Regan v. Wald (Don Regan was the Secretary of the Treasury at the time). Snow attended the oral arguments and was confident that the travel ban would be overturned, but by a 5 to 4 margin the Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Rehnquist, upheld the government’s “authority to regulate travel-related transactions.”

Despite the Court’s explicit statement that his actions were illegal, Snow kept up his efforts, and he paid the price. He was indicted by a grand jury for violations of the Trading with the Enemy Act. Syndicated columnist Mike Royko took up his cause, noting that “if convicted, he could be sentenced to 100 years and fined $500,000. (That’s an expensive lunker bass. It comes to five years and $25,000 a pound.)” Royko wrote that he didn’t condone law-breaking, but found the case confusing because there existed no travel bans on trips to Russia and China, and as far as he was concerned there should be no difference from spending American dollars on “godless, communist borscht” or “godless, communist egg rolls” as opposed to spending it on “godless, commie fish.”

Royko concluded that “[t]he prosecutors should take another look at Snow, and then throw him back. He’s not really a keeper.”

Hotel Islazul Hanabanilla is sited on the Hanabanilla Lake, in the Escambray Mountains, near Santa Clara of Villa Clara Province, Cuba

Hotel Islazul Hanabanilla is sited on the Hanabanilla Lake, in the Escambray Mountains, near Santa Clara of Villa Clara Province, Cuba

Snow argued that he should be classified under one of the exemptions of the act, which allowed for scholarly and journalistic travel. Specifically, he said that his “Bass Research International” qualified as an entity in exempted scientific research and according to the June 1990 issue of Bassmaster, “[h]e submitted notarized statements from respected fisheries experts corroborating his claim.” Despite the support of Royko and others, eventually, in his own words (in a 2002 interview with USA Today) Snow became the only American “ever convicted for traveling.” According to Bassmaster, the jury, “which deliberated for nearly a day before returning the verdict, also convicted Snow of criminal contempt of court, a charge that could have meant life in prison. Prosecutors had dropped an earlier conspiracy count and Snow was acquitted of three additional counts under the act.”

He was sentenced to:

  • 90 days in jail (to be served over 45 weekends);
  • Five years of probation;
  • 1,000 hours of community service; and
  • A fine of $5,000.

After serving his time, Snow continued to take anglers to Cuba. His website made clear that it was illegal to go and he told USA today that he gave travelers “12 tips on how to beat Uncle Sam.” In a 1989 “Cuba Today” article, he’d said that he was “going to fight this to the bitter end, until they lock me up and throw the key away. I was taught that this is the freest country in the world and I want the freedom to travel.”

Snow, ever the iconoclast, entered his name into the 2004 presidential election as a write-in candidate, with the following platform:

“Dan Snow is waging an Independent write-in campaign for President in 2004. Snow is a US Marine Corps veteran and an insurance agent. He is also very active in groups related to bass fishing. He was the two-time President of the Kentucky Bass Federation, a Founding Board Member of the Bass Research Foundation, and the first Chairman of the Angler’s Advisory Committee to the Bass Research Foundation. When President Carter loosened travel restrictions to Cuba, Snow was the first to organize a group trip there (and, yes, it was a bass fishing group). If elected, he promises to “restore the ‘freedom to travel’ for the American people.” As for foreign policy, he condemned the Iraq war against Saddam Hussein as “an illegal and immoral war.” He also supports abolishing the IRS, establishing a system of universal health care, the election of federal judges, legalization of prostitution and drugs, ending the tax-exempt status for churches, passage of the livable wage, and ‘an end to vulgar and profane music being played on public TV and radio.'”

He did not win the election but he continued to offer trips to Cuba until his death in 2007. Today the successor to his business still advertises opportunities to fish in Cuba, mostly in saltwater.

Raul Castro, Fidel's brother.

Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother.

Fidel Castro left office in 2011 and was succeeded by his brother Raul, who worked with US authorities to negotiate an end to the trade restrictions. On December 17, 2014, the United States and Cuba exchanged prisoners and thereby started the move to normalize relations and thereby end a half century of severe trade restrictions. While bass fishing was not foremost on the agenda, this may bode well for anglers who want to get a taste of the “promised land” of bass fishing in the future. In this respect, Snow’s past actions, reprehensible as they may have been, serve as a prologue to what might be.

Of course, our relationship with Cuba will likely remain a hot political topic at least through the 2016 presidential elections, so nothing is guaranteed, but there’s a chance that a few years from now anglers will be able to tell lakeside tales of a 10- or event 15-pounder while puffing on a legal Cuban cigar.

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